In a new twist to the corruption scandals dogging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the embattled premier on Tuesday was forced to deny that one of his top aides attempted to bribe a judge in exchange for closing an investigation into his wife.
Details of the allegations, first reported by veteran journalist Ben Caspit and widely picked up in the Israeli press, were partially confirmed by a police statement, though it did not name the prime minister or his aide directly.
The allegations center on an investigation into Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who is suspected of misusing funds at the couple’s official residence. She has been accused of dipping into government coffers to pay for private chefs, a caregiver for her father and the hiring an electrician for unnecessary weekend work, allegations she denies. Israel’s attorney general announced in September that an indictment was likely, though charges are yet to materialize.
Caspit alleged in his report in the centrist Maariv newspaper on Tuesday that Nir Hefetz, a longtime media adviser to Netanyahu and his family, urged an associate of a Judge Hila Gerstel to meet with her and offer her the position of attorney general if she agreed to close the investigation against Sara Netanyahu. Caspit wrote that the incident occurred during the race for the top law enforcement post at the end of 2015.
A statement released on behalf of the Netanyahu family said Hefetz never made the “hallucinatory proposal.”
“He was never asked to make such a proposal, and we do not believe that Hefetz even raised such a thing,” it said. Another statement went on to call Caspit’s report slanderous and said the journalist, who recently published a book on Benjamin Netanyahu, had an “absurd obsession with the prime minister’s wife.”
Hefetz also denied Caspit’s claims, saying such a conversation never happened, Israeli media reported.
A statement from Israeli police on Tuesday confirmed an investigation “connected to suspicions that took place in 2015 when a senior public member was approached to assist in advancing her position to the position of Attorney General (diverting the selection process for that specific candidate) in exchange for a future promise/agreement regarding a case.”
The new allegations come just a week after police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in two corruption cases, ramping up pressure on the prime minister, who has served in office for more than a decade in total.
Case 1000, the first of the two cases, centers on allegations that the prime minister received gifts worth $280,000 from billionaires in exchange for political favors, and Case 2000 involves claims that he tried to cut a deal with a newspaper publisher in return for favorable coverage.
The prime minister has vehemently denied all the charges and deemed the cases politically motivated, accusing his rivals of attempting to mount a coup. But the stream of allegations shows no sign of abating.
In addition, Case 3000, which relates to corruption surrounding the purchase of naval vessels and submarines from a German shipbuilder, also has been circling closer to Netanyahu. Police have not named him as a suspect but have questioned his close associates on the matter.
Case 4000 is looking into whether the prime minister enacted policies that would be financially beneficial to his friend Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the telecommunications company Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla! news site.
Hefetz, who served as the prime minister’s media adviser from 2014 to 2017, is under arrest for his alleged involvement in that case.
According to Tuesday’s report in Maariv, police received information that Hefetz held an urgent meeting with Eli Kamir, one of Gerstel’s associates.
“According to information received by the police, Nir Hefetz held an urgent meeting with Eli Kamir, one of Justice Gerstel’s associates. She was considered a leading candidate for the position of attorney general.”
“If you meet with Justice Gerstel in a closed room and ask her to close the investigation against Sara Netanyahu in exchange for her appointment as attorney general, what would her response be?” Caspit reported Hefetz as saying to Kamir.
Caspit said that Kamir was shocked and told Hefetz that he doubted the judge would even consider such a proposal but that Hefetz asked him to convey the message anyway. Kamir did so and, as he predicted, the judge was shocked by the suggestion, the report said.
“The keys in this affair are in the hands of Nir Hefetz,” Caspit told The Washington Post. “He can either say it was a joke or that he did not mean it or he can say that someone sent him, although I don’t believe Netanyahu would do that — he is far too smart — but perhaps someone in his circle?”
Despite the police recommendations that he be indicted, Netanyahu has vowed to fight on. In a televised speech a week ago, Netanyahu said he would continue to lead the country “with responsibility, dedication and loyalty.”
He pointed out that only half of the police recommendations end with an indictment.
“I’m sure that the truth will come to light, and I’m sure that also in the next elections I will once again win your loyalty,” Netanyahu said. His coalition partners and members of his right-wing Likud faction have, so far, rallied around him.
Washington Post writer Loveday Morris in Jerusalem contributed to this report.